EU-Turkey refugee talks turn sour as Erdogan belittles Juncker

Financial Times — The potential deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the migrant flow to Europe is floundering as Ankara pushes Brussels to deliver on a multibillion-euro aid package and other elements of the bargain.

The challenge of completing the deal, hammered out in a month of negotiations, was underlined at a difficult meeting on Monday between EU officials and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to people familiar with the talks, Mr Erdogan balked as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the respective presidents of the European Commission and Council, pressed him for a timetable for measures intended to discourage migrants in Turkey from continuing their journey to Europe. These include tighter border controls and awarding work rights to 2m Syrian refugees.

One official familiar with the discussion said the meeting turned “sour” as Mr Erdogan demanded that Europe move first on its pledges. Ankara is seeking €3bn in financial support, regular Turkey-EU summits, and a clear political path to open several chapters in stalled EU membership talks. There was also disagreement as to whether a planned EU assistance package covered one or two years.

According to another European official briefed on the meeting, Mr Erdogan at one point referred to Mr Juncker as the former premier of Luxembourg, “a country the size of a Turkish city”. On Thursday, Mr Juncker described the meeting as “sportive and exhausting”.

German and other EU officials are convinced Mr Erdogan has the ability to sharply cut the outflow from Turkey and want to see tangible results by the end of the year. But it remains unclear how much Turkey can actually do to make that happen, even if it reaches an agreement with the EU.

Frans Timmermans, the commission’s vice-president, went to Ankara on Thursday to try to rescue the plan with Feridun Sinirlioglu, Turkey’s foreign minister. It was supposed to have been fleshed out and formally signed off at an EU-Turkey summit on November 29. Mr Juncker said the discussions with Mr Timmermans showed the will of “both sides to get closer together”.Thursday’s talks helped to steady the situation but diplomats worry that difficulties with Mr Erdogan may jeopardise the final sign-off. “We don’t want a summit for the sake of a summit,” said one Turkish official. “We have to see they are serious.”

One European diplomat said the “tough exchange of views” underlined how difficult it was to negotiate with Turkey — particularly at a time when some member states are desperate for assistance with the crisis and have a weak bargaining position. “They are trying to exploit this situation in a way that some countries find unacceptable,” he said

There are an estimated 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey, along with established and lucrative smuggling routes. Turkish authorities would have to launch a massive effort to cut off the eastern Mediterranean route that many have followed to Europe.

It would require increased policing, greater co-operation with the EU and changes to policy to convince refugees that they might have better opportunities for work and assimilation in Turkey than in Germany or Scandinavia. One EU suggestion is to issue work permits for Syrian refugees in Turkey, which already has to deal with a high rate of unemployment while it increases the minimum wage.

Turkey’s coast guard and local officials bordering the Aegean Sea — from where as many as 5,000 people make the daily perilous crossing to Greek islands such as Lesbos — are overwhelmed by the task of saving lives, dismantling gangs that run the smuggling routes and housing migrants who are detained while trying to cross.

“There is no recipe to make this stop,” said Metin Corbatir, a former UNHCR official and president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara. “It is really difficult to physically stop them, and as you take more preventive measures, people put themselves at greater risk. Even if you buy 10 more coast guard ships, the demand is so huge, and for them it’s a life or death issue.”

In the past, both refugees, and the smuggling networks that now charge as much as €3000 a person, have proven adept at adapting to any additional policing. After 97,000 people crossed into Greece through the land border with Turkey, the EU stepped up patrols in 2010. The stream of migrants immediately shifted south to areas along the Aegean Sea.

Today, this is the main route for the 350,000 refugees who have landed on Greek islands since January. In that time, Turkish coast guards stopped 77,500 people from making the crossing, and arrested 149 smugglers.